Wednesday, April 26, 2017

What Baer Gets Wrong About Free Speech

In his recent piece for The New York Times, “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right about Free Speech,” Ulrich Baer offers a defense of student groups who disrupt campus speakers.  Baer argues that freedom of speech means “balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community.”

The obvious problem with Baer’s philosophy is that there is no objective criteria for evaluating the “inherent value” of any given viewpoint, nor for determining when it deprives another of recognized membership in a community.  This problem of subjectivity is compounded by the ideological imbalance in higher education, which raises questions about the ability of liberal academics to collectively assess the merits of conservative speech. 

In recent years, students have attempted to interrupt a large number of speakers whose political views were deemed offensive for a variety of amorphous reasons.  We cannot assume that students are capable of making correct judgments about these individuals’ views, based on what the read on the internet.  Students’ chants at Middlebury College that labeled Charles Murray “anti-gay,” despite his public support for gay marriage, reveal the flaw in this assumption.



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